Sunday, July 27, 2008

Review - "Down in the Bottomlands", "Georgia on My Mind", and "Death on the Nile"

Bob Eggleton
1994 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

And here is the previous Hugo professional artist darling Bob Eggleton. He's won eight Hugos for professional artist including this one which is his first. Since we're only now approaching the 2008 awards I think you can tell we'll be seeing a lot of his work. He's doesn't quite manage to dominate the way Whelan did since he skips a year quite a bit but until 2006 and 2007 he didn't miss two years in a row. The two most recent awards have gone to the same person, though, which may be a sign that his time of domination has come to an end.

I do generally enjoy Eggleton's work more than Whelans since Eggleton's images are generally more active but that terrible dragon painting is the only thing I could find that I could definitively place in the award period. I may have to get his art book (which won a Hugo award for non-fiction itself) just to have a better selection.

As for the stories this is a funny set of winners. Two of them don't have proper climaxes, two of them start with an Agatha Christie style set up and then drop it for another theme, two are essentially alternate history, and two take place at roughly the same geographic coordinates but one at two thousand feet below sea level and the other at twenty thousand feet above it. Worst of all I wasn't impressed with any of these stories.

"Down in the Bottomlands"
by Harry Harrison
1994 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Let's start off with the worst of the bunch and the only one I'd recommend actively avoiding. Harrison goes to his usual alternate history roots with this story where the Mediterranean got blocked off a few million years ago leaving a vast pit which belongs to a nation of neanderthal descendants that live along side homo sapiens. None of that actually matters for the purpose of the story, though, and Harrison doesn't even spell it out. He just drops hints every couple of pages about it in some of the worst cases of calling rabbits smeerps I think I've ever encountered.

"Calling a rabbit a smeerp" is James Blish's term for substituting in alien names for regular things in order to give the world an exotic feel. The problem here is that if you're talking about a rabbit and the reader is supposed to be able to understand the characters then giving things funny names but having them be the same thing is both lazy and annoying. There are some near literal "smeerps" in this story as a funny name is substituted for rabbits. Adding to this there are some animals that get to keep their English name in some circumstances and use a funny name in others.

The story itself starts off well. A conscripted tour guide to the national park found on the desert floor escorts a diverse group of tourists to a lodge in the park. One there one of the guests who may have been a spy for a foreign government is murdered. There's only a handful of suspects and in a remote location so this is going to be a murder mystery, right?

Nope! While the story continues to act like a murder mystery that falls away and we never do get an answer to who killed the man (there's two obvious possibilities at the end of the story neither of which makes a whole lot of sense). Instead the tour guide is forced mainly by authorial fiat to continue the tour since he's from a culture where if someone signs a contract they hold the employee responsible for it regardless of murder investigation, the fact that their contract would be with the government, and the obvious risks in going to remote locations with someone who doesn't mind killing people. Somewhere along the way a bomb plot turns up and the rest of the story is about chasing that until a deus ex machina comes along.

Harrison's story requires that the reader be able to accept that a nuclear device carried in piecemeal would be enough to collapse a mountain range. Even allowing for a fault line (which I shouldn't) the concept is ludicrous. The only way a reader could accept this is if they think nuclear bombs are magic and just do whatever the author says they do. Other technologies that are often used as magic include computers, nanomachines, and forensic science; radiation and electricity used to be magic but that has fallen out of favor.

I would cap off the "prose, plot, character" trifecta by talking about how annoying the characters were but I can't. They were all so bland there's no point. The tourists are all stereotypes, the protagonist is a stereotype, the investigator who turns up might have been out of a buddy cop film. There's just nothing to these characters to really latch into with the anger compared to the rest of the story.

So this one was bad. Really bad. The best thing I can say is that despite some lazy writing Harrison does keep things moving. It's like one of those Hollywood thrillers that don't make any sense but keep throwing things at the viewer to try to distract them. That trick doesn't work on me.

As one final note, if anyone reading this ever thinks that naming a character "Evillia" is a good idea just ask the next person you meet about it. They'll set you straight.

"Georgia on My Mind"
by Charles Sheffield
1994 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1994 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

A computer scientist is called half way around the world to a remote New Zealand farmhouse where his friend has made a major find. He has located what appear to be replacement parts for an analytical engine, Charles Babbage's nineteenth century programmable computer. Together they decipher the clues at the farmhouse and peice together an image of someone with not only a working computer a century before the first electronic one was built, but who used it to solve an even greater problem.

I didn't hate Sheffield's story so I'm not going to go into the detail I did with "Bottomlands" but it did get on my nerves. The problem was that nothing happened and there isn't even an ending to the story arc he was developing. The characters sit around talking about their find for twenty pages and the most story development that occurs is with two nineteenth century characters they talk about. Then at the end he appears to be developing a climax and the story just stops with nothing resolved and a message about globetrotting science fiction writers going after big science stories. While I was unhappy with the abrupt ending to "Death on the Nile" (which I'll get to in a moment) at least there the arc that Connie Willis was developing was completed; with "Georgia on My Mind" it makes the whole thing feel pointless.

And just because I find these kinds of things amusing I have to point out that Sheffield's character refers to the mysterious builder of the analytical engine by their first name several pages before he finds out what their name was.

"Death on the Nile"
by Connie Willis
1994 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

On a bumpy plane ride between Athens and Cairo there is a sudden jolt and everything outside the plane goes white. Upon landing in Cairo it becomes immediately clear to that something has gone very wrong. One woman in a group of touring couples comes to the conclusion that they died and are now in an Egyptian version of the afterlife. She's dealing with trying to hold on to her husband who is having an affair with another woman in their group. Our protagonist tries to prod the group on, especially her husband, to the judgment that will let them continue.

It's a good hook to work with but in this case Willis wasn't telling the story I was interested in. I wanted to see how sins of the heart were reflected in judgment, if Anubis felt that pushing a soul to him that was almost certain to fail his test was the same as murdering the person. Willis was telling the story of a woman who could not let go of her husband and ends the story before it reaches the point I wanted to see. It's not incompatible but I wanted philosophy and ethics and Willis gave me an emotional arc that I found unsatisfying.

The general concept is derivative and is commented on repeatedly in the story itself as such. This wouldn't be a problem except and I didn't care enough about Willis's characters to connect with the story. As such I don't recommend seeking it out but it would not surprise me in this case to find someone out there who loves it.